On February 28, 2021, Washington Post Executive Editor Martin “Marty” Baron retired from journalism. His legacy and his influence on the clergy sexual abuse survivors’ movement cannot be understated.
It’s been almost 20 years since the Boston Globe Spotlight team—under Baron’s management and direction—took a megaphone to their international media platform to tell the world what all of us here have known for decades: There was—and is—a child sexual abuse and cover-up crisis in the Catholic Church.
We are deeply grateful for this.
It’s difficult to think of another event that so significantly changed how lawmakers, Catholics, and the public saw and understood survivors, what they have suffered and live with, and the unique complexities of clergy abuse. Before 2001/2002, survivors existed in the margins, in silence. Already shamed by the abuse, the majority of survivors were discredited and disbelieved, regularly told they were crazy, lying, vying for attention, imagining things, wanted it, or vindictive for saying things “that would ‘hurt’ the church.”
Fortunately, we—and other advocates like us—believed survivors. And from that belief, we were beginning to make some headway in finding justice, but only when the existing laws allowed for it. Survivors faced huge hurdles to coming forward. Even though many knew that the predator who assaulted them was still working in churches and schools (and they had evidence to prove that abuse took place), there was little-to-no legal remedy to stop the abuser from hurting other kids.
After the 2001/2002 Boston Globe Spotlight series on the sexual abuse and cover-up scandal in the Archdiocese of Boston, the legal discourse around this kind of abuse began to change. Within months of the series, the California legislature passed the first of what would eventually be two retroactive civil windows for that state’s survivors of child sexual abuse. Taking what they saw in Boston, legislators in California understood that there was no difference in the management of the dioceses in California. Children were still at risk of abuse because predators and those who protected them had not been exposed.
Delaware, Hawaii, Minnesota, Arizona, New York, and New Jersey followed suit with their own windows. In these states and elsewhere, criminal laws were also changed, giving survivors the power to put their abusers behind bars. As a result, thousands of predators across the world were exposed, and some were jailed.
The Spotlight series also did something else new: it forced Church officials into long-term “damage control.” Since 2002, Catholic dioceses across the country—forced by the sheer number of brave survivors coming forward—have instituted some reforms, posted lists of some accused clerics, and turned over some files to law enforcement and the public.
Some. Not enough.
And many law enforcement and government agencies share our attitude. Grand Juries—most notably in Pennsylvania—produced extensive and damning reports on continued sex abuse and coverup in the Catholic Church. Attorney Generals and District Attorneys began to use search warrants to forcibly gain access to the secret files that bishops successfully hid for decades.
These things—legal reforms, public opinion, investigation, child safety—are all part of Marty Baron’s legacy. It is journalism at its best—exposing ugly truths, giving a voice to the disenfranchised, and inciting positive action far beyond the newspaper’s coverage boundaries. These reforms and changes won’t stop anytime soon. In fact, they helped reinforce today’s #metoo movements, encouraged survivors of sexual abuse in US Gymnastics to speak out, and changed how we all listen, believe, and protect children.
Thank you, Marty.